Meet the Man Who Hunts Killer Asteroids
by Michael A. Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Writer, Published Author, Defense and Tech Trends Expert
July 11, 2012 (TSR) - In May, I wrote about a team of experts that has launched a new company to mine precious metals from asteroids near Earth. Planetary Resources plans to extract ore and other resources from orbiting space rocks.
Not long ago, of course, this was the stuff of sci-fi.
It smacks of the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which a team of roughnecks lands on an asteroid on a collision course with Earth in order to blow it out of the sky.
As it turns out, there is a real-life asteroid hunter who is doing something even more exciting.
Dr. Ed Lu is a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three space flights, and he has just announced a new mission – find the asteroids that pose a threat to our planet and eradicate them. His work is more vital than you might think.
You see, near-Earth asteroids are a double-edged sword.
No doubt, thousands of them contain valuable metals and other physical assets that will open up a whole new paradigm of resource discovery and make some savvy investors rich.
On the other hand…
We’re surrounded by a belt of them that could strike Earth. Under the worst-case scenario, a large rock traveling at high speeds could wipe out most of the life on our planet. That remains a remote chance. But this fact is clear: Even a small space rock could cause widespread damage. It could kill thousands, or perhaps millions, if it were to strike a heavily populated urban area.
This is not the stuff of theory.
Earth has been hit by asteroids before – big ones.
Back in 1908, a space rock descended on a Siberian forest. More than 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, the Tunguska event leveled roughly 80 million trees. Just think of the havoc it would have caused had it struck New York City…
We need some way to track the asteroids that could pose a threat to us. And we need some way to prevent a potential collision with one from happening.
Enter Lu. He serves as the chairman and CEO of the nonprofit B612 Foundation. The group made waves last week when it announced plans to launch an asteroid-tracking telescope in the near future that can identify any killer space rocks that are on course to threaten us… decades before they could hit us.
The idea behind the Sentinel Space Telescope is simple. Place the infrared (IR) device into orbit around the Sun near Venus. Once there, Sentinel will map the swarms of large asteroids that ring the inner solar system.
Lu’s group says it plans to launch the instrument before the end of the decade. To do so, they will rely on another firm I told you about: Sentinel will blast off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Once there, the telescope will catalog 90% of the asteroids that are in Earth’s region of the solar system and that are larger than 425 feet (140 meters). The IR device also can find asteroids as small as 150 feet in diameter. It will orbit in a region of between 30 million and 170 million miles from Earth.
“During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million near-Earth asteroids,” Lu said in making the announcement in San Francisco. He added that Sentinel will be “creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth.”
For its part, B612 doesn’t plan to zap asteroids. Instead, it will transmit data back to earth using NASA’s Deep Space Network.
But just in case…
Lu has invented a device that could save the earth from a killer asteroid. Unlike in the movie Armageddon, Lu sees no need to blow the space rock into smithereens. He suggests a gentler, more cutting-edge way to save humanity, if need be.
His Gravity Tractor is a spacecraft that can alter an asteroid’s orbit. And it sounds like something straight out of Star Trek…
Under a plan he describes on his website, Lu says the spacecraft would hover above the asteroid. It would then slowly pull the rock off course using nothing more than the gravitational attraction between the two bodies.
“If an asteroid is found to be at an impact trajectory with Earth,” Lu says, “you will have many decades of notice. And it turns out that you only need to change its velocity by a very small amount in order to prevent a collision.”
While working on this report for you, I was able to get Ed Lu on the phone.
I thought we would speak only briefly – I just needed to check a couple of facts. But our phone call turned into a wide-ranging chat that spanned nearly 30 minutes. Lu had some absolutely intriguing things to say.
To Ed Lu, the threat from killer asteroids is evident.
That’s why Lu figured the world’s governments would have to come together to protect Earth.
Then again, he is a former NASA astronaut. So he’s used to seeing government agencies invest billions in space missions of all kinds.
Given that the technology to do so already exists, it sounded like a no-brainer that the world’s political leaders to climb on board.
But over time, it became clear that budget-strapped governments had no stomach for the huge project. That left him two choices – quit the field outright…
Or start thinking like an entrepreneur.
As Lu explained in a wide-ranging chat with me, it was then that he decided to take matters into its own hands.
As he sees it, saving planet Earth is so important, he doesn’t mind spearheading the hundreds of millions dollars in fundraising it will take to launch the Sentinel Space Telescope.
By 2018, Lu’s group plans to place the infrared (IR) device into orbit around the Sun, near Venus. Once there, Sentinel will deploy its 20-inch mirror to map the swarms of large asteroids that ring the inner solar system. The builders of this deep-space telescope estimate that it will find some 500,000 near-Earth asteroids in its five-and-a-half years of operation.
Today, I want to share Lu’s own observations about how this program could save the human race from annihilation.
And in a moment, I’ll tell you how you can get involved, too.
But first, here’s the thing. I’ve talked with hundreds of senior leaders in many fields in the last 30 years, and I found Lu’s comments fascinating. So, as much as possible, I want you to get much of the story directly from him. Take a look…
“I think we’re trying to do something big in a very different way,” said Lu, a veteran of three NASA space flights. “And you know, I guess that’s the definition of radical change.
“I mean, we’re talking about changing the solar system, and that’s pretty cool. That’s very science-fiction-y but here we are. That’s the age we live in.
“Someday there is going to be an asteroid with our name on it, right? Every couple of hundred years, something hits anyhow. I don’t know when the next one is. But, if we do our job right, this planet, the third planet from the sun, should never be hit by a large asteroid again from this day forward.
“And that’s because humans on this planet will actually nudge the asteroids as needed to keep that from happening. That’s pretty cool because this planet has been subject to these impacts for the last four-and-one-half billion years. It’s just been part of life here.
“Life occasionally gets wiped out. These things have just happened, right? Well, that shouldn’t happen anymore.”
To be sure, Lu credits NASA with the Spaceguard Survey in which the agency located the very largest asteroids that could hit Earth. Those are the ones bigger than about two-thirds of a mile in diameter… the ones that, if they struck the planet, little would survive.
But the more Lu thought about it, the more he realized that smaller space rocks could still wreak havoc around the globe.
“What if it’s an asteroid that’s only like three-fourths that size, where it only sends us back to the Stone Age?” he asked. “Or, that it only collapses the world’s economy for 300 years? We won’t even (be able to) live for that.
“To me, that seemed like a giant gaping hole. Something that maybe only kills 80% of people on earth you didn’t care about seems nuts. That’s going to wipe out civilization worldwide, and the reason is because it will take growing seasons out worldwide for a few years.
“You know how much food we have stockpiled on Earth? A couple of months. If you lose growing seasons worldwide for a few years, that’s it. You know, there’s a mass die off. There’s not enough food to feed the world for a few years, period. End of story.”
Now, after going public with B612?s Sentinel plans last week, Lu says he’s trying to raise “a few hundred million dollars.” He told me the figure may sound big but it’s in line with donations for other large public telescopes, like the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
Unlike giving money toward building the wing of an art museum or symphony hall, donors know they will have little – if any – chance to see or use the large telescopes they help fund. So, he doesn’t see any real challenge in lining up donors to put Sentinel in orbit.
B612 plans to target large corporations and wealthy individuals. But it will gladly accept small donations.
“The alumni of Stanford (University) just finished a fundraising campaign of $6 billion. That totally dwarfs what we are trying to do. If we can build a community of a million or so supporters worldwide, we can do this.
“We want people to have that feeling that humans can actually do some of these amazing things, that they can get involved. You can be a part owner of this thing, essentially.”
Lu’s comments clearly underscore we are living in the Era of Radical Change. If he’d made these statements just a decade ago, some might have wondered if he’d spent a bit too much time in a space capsule. Today, this kind of talk is entering the mainstream. We see a barrage of breakthroughs almost every day now – breakthroughs that are changing the world around us faster than we can fully understand.
And leaders like Lu show that high-tech can save America and the world – at the very least, save it from the hazards posed by asteroids.
From an investment standpoint, there is no way to measure the return on any money you might donate to B612 through its website.
But consider this: You’ll be an important part of the New Space Race.
And who knows… you just might help save the world while you’re at it.
Originally published in the Era of Radical Change and edited for TSR.
AUTHOR: Michael A. Robinson
Michael A. Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, published author, researcher and financial analyst. A veteran technology writer located near Silicon Valley, he also profiles defense companies for Signal Magazine and Defense Media Network. His other articles have appeared in theNew York Times, American Enterprise, National Real Estate Investor and the Wall Street Journal. Robinson served as a staff writer at the Oakland Tribune, Detroit News, San Francisco Examiner, the Kansas City Times and American Banker. He won reporting awards for an examination of Michigan’s troubled workers’ compensation system and the causes of the Bay Area’s job losses. His reporting talents garnered him a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a profile in Columbia Journalism Review. He also has appeared on several TV and radio programs including Larry King’s syndicated radio show. His book Overdrawn, the Bailout of American Savings, was a critically acclaimed account of the nation’s S&L crisis. Now out of print, the book remains for sale at Amazon.com. Michael has an honors economics degree from the University of Missouri at Columbia where he served as a teaching assistant for money and banking and wrote his thesis under the guidance of a senior official of the Federal Reserve. He minored in journalism. His other interests include playing blues guitar, writing songs, sailing, skiing, and trap shooting. He is a registered NRA Triple Distinguished expert in shotgun, pistol and rifle. Michael is the first analyst to uncover the rare earth mineral crisis, he amassed cumulative gains of 990% for his readers in just 16 months. Today he is the editor of Radical Technology Profits. He also edits an e-letter called Era of Radical Change that explores “what’s next” in the tech investing world. He also writes are defense and technology specialist for Money Matters.